VENICE - Southeast High's 66-59 victory over North Port brought the Seminoles and head coach John Harder their eighth consecutive district title. That's eight years, three different district alignments and some pretty good girls basketball teams.
But Saturday's Class 5A-District 12 title will hold a special place in Harder's heart. This was the year it wasn't supposed to happen. The Noles lost nine regular season games, saw their 10-year Manatee County win streak come to an end and experienced several midseason slumps, including a four-game losing streak.
An emotional Harder had all that in mind as he celebrated and savored the Noles' latest success with his girls.
"How 'bout that win?" said an exasperated Harder as he headed to the locker room following the game. "That was exciting. That was the toughest of the eight."
Despite giving up 34 points to North Port phenom Chelsea Johnson, Southeast played some of its finest basketball of the season. The Noles (18-9), who host St. Petersburg Lakewood in the Class 5A-Region 3 quarterfinals at 7 p.m. on Thursday, pulled away in the final quarter as freshman Bianca Hanna scored seven of her 25 points, and four other Southeast players added baskets.
Keimara Brooks, who scored five points in the Noles' 23-point fourth quarter, knocked down a huge 3-pointer to get the Noles going in the final eight minutes. Brooks finished with 20 points.
It's been a tumultuous season for the team, but Brooks and the Noles finally believe.
"This was big," Brooks said. "This let us know that we can keep going as long as we want to and as long as we work hard and play as a team."
Southeast jumped out to an 18-8 lead after the first quarter, and despite several runs from the Bobcats, the Noles led most of the way.
Every time North Port looked like it might slip out of contention, Johnson would come through with a big basket. She scored 14 points in the third quarter to give her team a short-lived 44-43 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
"Chelsea Johnson is a magical player," Harder said. "She's the real deal."
But the Noles had some magic of their own, as they controlled the paint in the final quarter, consistently keeping possessions alive. Carolyn Taite and Breona Siplin combined for nine points in the paint in the fourth.
Siplin finished with four points, but she caught Harder's attention by doing the dirty work all game and all tournament. Harder said he's a big believer in the sixth man, and Siplin gave the Noles excellent minutes off the bench.
"Siplin won it all week," Harder said.
North Port coach Tom Tintor shook his head when asked to explain Southeast's mild upset of his top-seeded Bobcats.
"We just couldn't crack it," Tintor said. "(The Noles) have been here before, and they knew what they had to do. It was a battle."
Eight turned out to be a magic number for the Noles on Saturday. Not only was it their eighth straight district title, it was also the team's eighth straight win since it lost their county streak to Lakewood Ranch last month.
Harder said Saturday was the best the team has played during the streak.
"This was a big, big deal to beat North Port," Harder said. "This team was not picked to go so far . . . and who could have figured this night would be so special?"
SOUTHEAST (66) - Keimara Brooks 7 5-6 20, Kasondra Simmons 1 0-1 2, LaDaisha Holloway 0 4-4 4, Bianca Hanna 10 2-7 25, Carolyn Taite 4 1-1 9, Kayla Rivers 1 0-0 2, Breona Siplin 1 0-0 2. Totals: 25 12-20 66.
NORTH PORT (59) - Tara Gilot 0 0-0 0, Brittany Konik 2 0-0 4, Gaby Paraguez 0 0-0 0, Vanessa Price 0 0-0 0, Chelsea Johnson 13 5-5 34, Jahnishia Registe 1 1-4 3, Rheisa Burke 4 1-5 9, Secoya Black 3 0-0 6, M'risha Thomas 1 1-2 3. Totals: 24 8-16
Southeast 18 8 17 23 - 66
North Port 8 15 21 15 - 59
3-pointers: Southeast 4 (Hanna 3, Brooks), North Port 3 (Johnson 3). Team fouls: Southeast 17, North Port 21. Fouled out: Burke (North Port). Records: Southeast 18-9, North Port 14-8.